An exclusive chat with the modern day master of classic Chicago blues
Guitarist Dave Specter has established himself among the most notable 21st century Chicago bluesmen toiling in the long shadows of legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and Little Walter, among many others.
Specter has acquitted himself well over his 35-year career, playing with many of the giants of the genre and building his own considerable legacy one album and one show at a time. Specter’s work has helped bring the aging art form of the blues into the new millennium, pushing back on the traditional stylistic barriers by adding his own original perspective to the work of his musical idols.
Specter’s education in the blues began where all great Chicago bluesmen begin, in the streets and clubs of the city. “I started immersing myself in the blues scene in Chicago,” he told me in a 2008 interview for About.com Blues, “I got a fake I.D. probably when I was about 17 and started going to clubs and hearing Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Magic Slim…so I got out to hear it live at a pretty young age.” After serving his apprenticeship playing behind artists like Sam Lay (of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band) and Hubert Sumlin (Howlin’ Wolf’s longtime guitarist), Specter put his first band, the Bluebirds, together in 1989.
“I’d been in Son Seals’ band for almost two years,” he told About.com Blues, “and then I joined the Legendary Blues Band for about six months. That made it about four years of being a sideman on the blues scene.” Specter began to get an itch to strike out on his own. “I started to develop more of a vision of what I wanted to grow into as a musician, and as a guitar player,” he says. “In order to achieve that, I realized that I’d better start my own band, because I wasn’t going to be able to do it in somebody else’s band.” Specter’s band quickly made a name for itself on the competitive Chicago blues scene, leading to a recording contract with Bob Koester’s legendary Delmark Records label, which released Bluebird Blues, his debut album, in 1991.
Nearly three decades since his debut, Specter has a dozen critically-acclaimed albums under his belt with the recent release of Blues From the Inside Out by Delmark, as well as guest appearances on albums by talents like jazz guitarist Steve Freund, vocalist Tad Robinson, guitarist Lurrie Bell, and blues band Mississippi Heat. Specter produced Blues From the Inside Out, as he has his last few albums, as well as producing work by artists like Freund, Billy Seward, Al Miller, and Floyd McDaniel. The album features a dozen new original songs. What did Specter want to do differently with Blues From the Inside Out than on your previous albums?
In a recent email interview with Rock and Roll Globe, Specter says “I’m excited for people to hear all the new music on Blues From the Inside Out, as it’s all original material that I and/or my co-writers wrote over the last few years. I feel that it’s a really nice mix of styles and grooves featuring some relevant commentary on what’s happening in the country/world today. It’s also my vocal debut after 35 years in the music biz.”
The album’s cover artwork is reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s 1959 Time Out LP. Did Specter have any input into its design? “The artist who designed the cover, Al Brandtner, was inspired by the Time Out cover as well as the artist Georges Braque,” he says.
Throughout the years, Specter has been content to let his guitar do the singing for him, eschewing singing his songs in favor of using phenomenal blues singers like Barkin’ Bill Smith, Tad Robinson, and Otis Clay on albums like Bluebird Blues, Blueplicity and Message In Blue. After 35 years and a dozen studio albums, what made Specter finally decide to sing on Blues From the Inside Out? “I was always content and focused being a guitarist with the guitar representing my voice as a musician. I’m still learning my craft as it’s a lifelong journey. I just recently became inspired to start singing as the feeling just came over me. Hard to explain, but I just felt it was time.”
Blues From the Inside Out opens with the swinging title track, the first of three on which Specter lays down his distinctive vocals. The guitarist’s voice is engaging with a hint of jocularity – he’s never going to be mistaken for a pure blues singer like, say, Curtis Salgado – but his voice nevertheless displays a blue collar ruggedness and Midwestern twang similar to Elvin Bishop that makes one wonder why he’s waited so long to bring it to song. As for “Blues From the Inside Out,” the song rocks with Specter’s stinging fretwork riding high above an energetic instrumental backdrop, clever lyrics paired with an undeniable rhythmic foundation. With “Ponchatoula Way,” fellow Chicago bluesman Brother Kohn Kattke takes the microphone and adds his welcome keyboard flourishes to another up-tempo, horn-driven blues rave-up with some Louisiana-styled syncopated rhythms (think the Meters) and Specter’s gorgeous six-string embellishments.
Kattke also sits in on the brilliant “March Through the Darkness,” a brilliantly-executed, old-school soul-blues tune with a contemporary, socially-conscious lyrical message. Kattke’s rich keyboard tapestry reminds of Booker T. Jones while Specter’s resonating guitar perfectly blends Memphis soul and Chicago blues to frame the song’s uplifting lyrics. Specter travels back down south to the Louisiana swamps for the kudzu-clung instrumental “Sanctifunkious,” which uses a basic Meters/Neville Brothers musical blueprint to build an odd hybrid that is at once both infectiously danceable but also aurally mind-bending, with scraps of Specter’s psyche-drenched guitar bouncing between your ears.
Legendary Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen plays on two of the tracks on Blues From the Inside Out and co-wrote the song “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’” with Specter, providing the song’s lyrics. How did Specter get Kaukonen to appear on the album and what did he bring to the sessions? “Jorma and I met about 7-8 years ago at SPACE in Evanston [an area music venue] and became friends, sharing our love of blues, guitars, etc.” says Dave. “A few years ago, he told me about some lyrics he’d written that he was having trouble putting music to and asked if I could do something with them. I was quite flattered and, about a year later, I reached out and asked if we could record the tune on my new album. He agreed and I then thought I’d ask if he’d like to be a guest on the album. Again, he agreed and was really excited to come to Chicago and record on Delmark with a Chicago blues band. We recorded his tune, ‘The Blues Ain’t Nothin’, and he also plays great guitar on ‘How Low Can One Man Go?’ Jorma brought a great vibe and warm, powerful presence into the studio. I was a real thrill and I’m very grateful for the experience.”
In these fractured days and times, singing about politics is risky business, indeed, but Specter has never been afraid to speak his mind so he jumps, headfirst, into the morass he describes on “How Low Can One Man Go?” A definite anti-Trump screed, with Jorma Kaukonen providing a scorching guitar line, Specter lays the President low with a more insightful and thoughtful blast of lyrical venom than a dozen Beltway pundits have been able to muster. While others tremble in fear of Trump’s mean-spirited twists, Specter backs up his words with flamethrower guitar pyrotechnics and the explosive rhythms of bassist Harlan Lee Terson and drummer Marty Binder.
“How Low Can One Man Go?” is pretty brutal in its estimation of our current President. What prompted Specter to write the song and was he afraid of a backlash from some of his fans? “It was somewhat cathartic to write ‘How Low Can One Man Go?’ says Dave. “I see Trump representing some of the worst qualities I’ve ever seen in a politician, President, or human being. It’s still hard to believe that someone so hateful, duplicitous, bigoted, ignorant, and completely unqualified for the job became President. I believe in respecting the office of the Presidency, but the occupant has to earn our respect. As Thomas Jefferson eloquently put it ‘dissent is the highest form of patriotism.’ Yes I’m expecting some backlash, but the support and gratitude I’ve received for writing the song has been very, very strong.”
“Asking For A Friend” is the third Specter-sung tune on Blues From the Inside Out, and it’s probably the most traditional blues number on the album. The guitarist’s voice is clear and strong, but it’s his guitar that sings the loudest here, his fluid technique and unique style imbued with the influence of 100 years of blues guitarists, the rhythm section rocking steadily behind his lead with another engaging instrumental soundtrack. The longest song on the album, the seven-minute-plus instrumental “Minor Shout” covers a lot of stylistic territory, starting with its exotic opening notes and Latin-tinged, Santana-sounding rhythms – bolstered, no doubt, by guest musician Ruben Alvarez’s spry percussion. Alvarez has played behind artists as diverse as John Mayall, Junior Wells, Dave Mason, and Ramsey Lewis and his contribution here definitely brightens up the song. Specter’s fretwork flies all over the place, but is never less than magical.
VIDEO: Dave Specter and Jorma Kaukonen “How Low Can One Man Go”
Kaukonen contributes lyrics and guitar to “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’,” while Kattke brings his soulful vocals and the Liquid Soul Horns blast away on a delightful Chicago blues romp while Specter’s guitar bobs and weaves like a champion prizefighter. The New Orleans-singed “Soul Drop” ventures bravely into Professor Longhair territory with a Kattke’s jaunty piano-pounding and fiery vocals matched with a jump ‘n’ jive soundtrack guaranteed to get you out of your seat and on your feet. By contrast, “Soul Drop” is an up-tempo instrumental reminiscent of Booker T. & the M.G.’s best 1960s-era work, Specter doing his best Steve Cropper six-string homage while the band choogles on behind him with no little heart and soul infused into their performance. Kattke’s keyboards, in particular, evoke such a distinctive place and time in American music history as to be uncanny.
Guest singer Sarah Marie Young, appearing on the gospel-tinged “Wave’s Gonna Come,” was a brilliant choice by Specter in his role as producer. Accompanied by acoustic guitarist Bill Brichta, who brings a certain atmospheric gravitas to the song, Young’s soaring voice mixes the best of her own talent with the undeniable influence of the great Mavis Staples. The resulting performance is powerful in its execution, the bluesy apocalyptic fury of the lyrics fueled by Specter’s white-hot, dark-hued guitarplay and Binder’s martial beat. It’s an emotionally-charged performance and, if Specter had chosen to close the album here, it would have provided a fine finish to a solid collection. But he lets us down easy with “String Chillin’,” a six-minute instrumental showcase of Specter’s immensely imaginative guitarwork, with a vaguely-shuffling rhythm and hints of piano rolling beneath the guitarist’s entertaining string-play.
Midway through his fourth decade in the blues, Specter continues to explore the limits of the art form, challenging himself instrumentally and trying to find new ways to express his muse. As a seasoned veteran of the Chicago blues scene, what is the biggest challenge of being a blues artist in this day and age? “It’s always been challenging to be a working blues musician,” says Dave, “as it’s a relatively non-commercial or alternative genre in the music biz, appealing to a fairly small audience. The decline in album sales and increase in streaming, downloading, burning, and pirating hits hard and makes things even more challenging,” he says. “The blues however is alive and well, and I believe always will be.”
Find out more about Dave Specter at his website: www.davespecter.com
AUDIO: Dave Specter Blues From The Inside Out (full album)